African Press International (API)

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East Africa: Our children will be united by technology (commentary)

Posted by African Press International on May 3, 2008

Publisher: Korir, africanpress@getmail.no source.eastafrican.ke

Story By Charles Onyango-Obbo.

This Tuesday quite a few East African policy wonks will don their thinking caps and head to the Rwandan capital for the launch of the most ambitious attempt to predict the likely collective fortunes and misfortunes of the region some 40 years from now.

The occasion will be the global launch of the Society for International Developments East African scenarios report, What Do We Want? What Might We Become: Imagining the Future of East Africa. This labour of love was for four years in the making. The region is more familiar with SIDs State of East Africa Reports, a more certain undertaking. This gazing into the East African crystal ball, however, is a more adventurous business as it involves taking a few gambles.

Given that the East African Communitys life expectancy is under 50 years, probably over half the people reading this will be dead by 2040, the East Africa that the scenario-building team imagines. I guess there is still reward in knowing the likely shape of the region we are bequeathing our grandchildren. These futures shall no doubt be reported on widely after the Kigali launch, but a quick reading of it reveals why it is extremely important to build these scenarios of our futures.

Consider this: The State of East Africa Report 2007 celebrated the ringtone economy, the creation of a regional market driven by the cellphone companies bringing East Africa together through Celtels One Network and the Safaricom-MTN-Vodacom Just Like Home tie-up. Together with Safaricoms introduction of the digital money transfer service M-Pesa, the report spoke of the likelihood of the cellphone companies emerging as the real East African central banks of the future.

The optimistic scenario in Imagining the Future of East Africa picks up this element of enlightened decades ahead driven partly by new technologies.

When the main work on the report was completed late last year, it still viewed the evolution of East African citizenship as something that would largely be influenced by the decisions of the concert of EAC leaders, the Summit. However, two actions since then, one by a corporate, the other by a national government, now have the potentially of dramatically altering the pace of integration. One was the announcement by a new EAC-entrant last year that it would no longer require EAC professionals to have work permits to be employed in Rwanda.

And the other was the decision by Kenyas Safaricom, the regions most profitable company, to open its IPO to all East Africans who, for that purpose, would be treated like local Kenyans. It is a decision with wide political significance. While it was always clear that the technology companies would be important in shaping the architecture of the region, it was presumed this would mostly be in the economic area. No one imagined it would be so political.

Likewise, whereas it was evident that the entry of Burundi and Rwanda would remake the EAC, no one imagined that it would be a new entrant who would make the first bold leap into the future. The report had foreseen various catastrophes, but it didnt imagine that one would come so soonand from Kenya, via the bloody clashes following the December disputed polls. While the Kenya violence threw up a surprising point of weakness in the EAC, its philosophical impact at was even more unpredictable.

As the economies of Uganda, Rwanda, eastern Congo and Southern Sudan went into a tailspin because of the Kenya violence, the debate about how interdependent the EAC countries are was settled. Perhaps once and for all. Who would have bet on that?

*Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Groups managing editor for convergence and new products.

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African Press International – api

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